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The Theory of Personality Development of Freud

Daniel Cole, Emily Cummins
  • Author
    Daniel Cole

    Daniel Cole has taught a variety of philosophy and writing classes since 2012. He received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Kentucky in 2021, his MA in philosophy from Miami University in 2011, and his BA in philosophy from Ball State University in 2008.

  • Instructor
    Emily Cummins

    Emily Cummins received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and French Literature and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology. She has instructor experience at Northeastern University and New Mexico State University, teaching courses on Sociology, Anthropology, Social Research Methods, Social Inequality, and Statistics for Social Research.

Learn all about Freud's theory of personality. Understand the main elements of Freud's theory of personality development and learn the stages of this theory. Updated: 12/07/2021

Freud's Theory of Personality

Sigmund Freud developed an influential theory of personality.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud is one of the most notable, prolific contributors to psychology. He developed several interconnected models of the mind including the dynamic, economic, and topographical. One of the basic tenets of his general theory, regardless of the model being used, is that people have drives that are unconscious. These unconscious drives can cause various psychopathological symptoms (meaning they manifest as mental illness), for instance, different kinds of neuroses.

Freud's theory of personality involves a topographical model of the mind, or in other words, Freud's theory is expressed in a map of different mental agencies. The names of these agencies are the id, the ego, and the superego.

  • Id - The id is the amorphous, desiring agency. It is immediate and lacks any self-reflection. It merely desires.
  • Superego - The superego is the critical agency of the mind. At risk of oversimplification, it is one's conscience that evaluates the self and seeks to block or disavow some desires.
  • Ego - The ego is the agency that mediates between the id and the superego. That is, the ego attempts to navigate how to satisfy its desires without violating the dictates of its superego. The ego also is the locus of conscious thought and deals with sensations and the 'real world' more generally, although it is by no means fully conscious.

These agencies contribute to one's personality. If someone has an underdeveloped ego and superego, then their id will be overactive and they will be impulsive. Moreover, their ability to recognize reality outside of their own desires and fantasies might be compromised. A person with a hyper-developed ego may be overly harsh on themselves, and they may even develop a moral masochism. That is, they may take pleasure in being punished for perceived transgressions regardless of the severity of those transgressions. A person with a predominate ego structure may appear to others as 'robotic' and have a lacking 'zest for life.'

Sigmund Freud

If you've ever taken a psychology class, chances are you've encountered the work of Sigmund Freud, one of the most (perhaps the most) famous psychiatrists of all time. Throughout the 1900s, and up until his death in 1939, he was a prolific writer. While Freud made many contributions to psychology and psychiatry, one of his most famous contributions was developing a theory of human personality, which still influences psychologists today. Let's talk more about this.

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  • 0:31 Stages of Development
  • 1:50 The Human Mind
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Freud's Theory of Personality Development

On Freud's account, the agencies of the mind do not exist fully formed at the start of human life. They emerge and continue to develop in a series of stages. Children progress through stages not only as their bodies develop but also as they are introduced into a culture and form intersubjective relationships (especially with their parents). Thus, Freud analyzes childhood in terms of psychological development with focus on unconscious drives. Each stage will involve pleasure in some way, and for Freud, this pleasure is not merely self-preservative; it is sexual (or libidinal). Freud's theory of personality development includes five phases.

The Oral Stage

The oral stage is the first stage of personality development during which babies navigate their world and derive pleasure primarily through tasting things. One can readily observe that infants place many objects in their mouths. They ultimately learn to eat what is pleasant (tastes good) and spit out what is unpleasant (tastes bad). The oral stage primarily deals with negotiating the relationship between the id and the developing ego. By establishing that some things--things that taste good--can be incorporated into the child, the child is both dealing with their desire for pleasure and the reality principle. That is, the child learns that not everything can or should be consumed (either because it tastes bad or brings pain because it is dangerous). For instance, if a child eats a colorful piece of fuzz off the carpet, they may have expected a good taste because they were drawn to the bright colors. But their ego is operating such that the fuzz tastes bad, and so they learn to spit out the fuzz. In that way, they learn to deal with reality rather than merely their own desires and fantasies.

The Anal Stage

The anal phase takes place roughly during toddlerhood, and it takes place as the child become toilet-trained. This leads to having pleasures and pains related to elimination (defecation and micturition), including praise for using the toilet instead of a diaper. Much like the oral stage, this phase focuses on the development of the ego and establishing the psychic boundaries of the self. The child is learning to take pleasure in having boundaries, since elimination helps to establish what belongs inside and outside the child.

The Phallic Stage

In the phallic stage, children discover their genitals (penis and clitoris) as sources of pleasure. This stage is concomitant with the Oedipus complex, in which children grapple with their love of their parents but realize that their parents love each other. The fact that parents love each other means that children are in competition with their parents. While this process unfolds with each parent (children are 'polymorphously perverse,' which entails at least a primitive bisexuality) the Oedipus Complex is dominated by treating one parent as a love object and the other as a competitor. At least in normal development, the Oedipus Complex is resolved in renouncing a parent as the primary love object, which means that a child has learned to respect the decisions and relationships other people have external to the child. This stage starts with the id being attached to a parent or guardian, in the sense of the child wanting all of the parent's affection and attention unconditionally. It ends with a repression of the id's connection. In its place, the superego starts to form and the child gains a sense of having limited, conditional access to other persons.

The Latency Stage

The latency stage lasts from roughly the age of five until twelve (around puberty). This stage is essentially fallout from the resolution of the Oedipus Complex. Consequently, it deals primarily with the repression of sexual pleasure and the development of the superego. During this phase, children tend to be less concerned with what they desire in other people and instead focus on how they are desired by others, especially by their parents. That desire takes the form of wanting to be a 'good boy' or 'girl.' For example, a child seeking to attain good grades in order to obtain praise from their parents and teachers is an exemplar of the processes operating during the latency stage, in which the child's superego and moral self image predominate their psychic life.

Stages of Development

To understand where Freud was coming from, we have to start from the very beginning - childhood. Freud believed that there were several stages to development, and our adult personalities ultimately come from the ways in which we experience these stages. Freud called these psychosexual stages, and our personality develops as we move through them. Freud believed that these stages developed according to the things that bring us pleasure. Freud came up with 4 of these stages.

First, we experience the oral stage from birth until we are about 1 ½ years old. During this stage, we are fixated on oral things, such as a bottle or a pacifier, which are things that bring babies pleasure.

Next, we experience the anal stage, during which pleasure comes from developing elimination habits, such as what happens during toilet training. This stage happens around ages 1 ½ to 3 years old.

The next stage is the phallic stage, which happens around 3 to 5 years old. This is where children begin to develop more interest in the opposite sex parent, which Freud called the Oedipus complex.

Next is the latency stage, which happens when we're about 5 to 12 years old, and it is where children begin to develop feelings for the opposite sex, but these feelings remain dormant.

It's not until the genital phase, around 12 years old to adulthood, that we see the development of sexual behaviors and feelings expressed for the opposite sex.

The Human Mind

So now that we know what these stages are, how do they relate to personality? Freud hypothesized that the human mind is composed of 3 parts: the id, the ego, and the superego.

The id is basically like what we're born with, and it's all about pleasure. For example, newborns just want their needs fulfilled, and they want whatever feels good at the time. There isn't much awareness of anything else.

The ego begins to develop as we move into later stages of development. The ego is more aware of others outside of us. The ego tries to get the id's needs met but with more consideration that there are other people out there. The ego begins to develop as we move through the later stages of development.

The superego is the part of the mind that operates as the processing center. This is sort of like the part of the brain that is concerned with things like morality or right and wrong. The superego begins to develop in the phallic stage, when we're around five years old.

Stages of Adult Personality

So, what does this have to do with personality? Freud argued that a psychologically healthy person must have completed all the stages of development. If he or she does not, this can lead to psychological problems or an unhealthy personality. Additionally, if we become fixated in a particular stage, this can create problems in our personality.

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Video Transcript

Sigmund Freud

If you've ever taken a psychology class, chances are you've encountered the work of Sigmund Freud, one of the most (perhaps the most) famous psychiatrists of all time. Throughout the 1900s, and up until his death in 1939, he was a prolific writer. While Freud made many contributions to psychology and psychiatry, one of his most famous contributions was developing a theory of human personality, which still influences psychologists today. Let's talk more about this.

Stages of Development

To understand where Freud was coming from, we have to start from the very beginning - childhood. Freud believed that there were several stages to development, and our adult personalities ultimately come from the ways in which we experience these stages. Freud called these psychosexual stages, and our personality develops as we move through them. Freud believed that these stages developed according to the things that bring us pleasure. Freud came up with 4 of these stages.

First, we experience the oral stage from birth until we are about 1 ½ years old. During this stage, we are fixated on oral things, such as a bottle or a pacifier, which are things that bring babies pleasure.

Next, we experience the anal stage, during which pleasure comes from developing elimination habits, such as what happens during toilet training. This stage happens around ages 1 ½ to 3 years old.

The next stage is the phallic stage, which happens around 3 to 5 years old. This is where children begin to develop more interest in the opposite sex parent, which Freud called the Oedipus complex.

Next is the latency stage, which happens when we're about 5 to 12 years old, and it is where children begin to develop feelings for the opposite sex, but these feelings remain dormant.

It's not until the genital phase, around 12 years old to adulthood, that we see the development of sexual behaviors and feelings expressed for the opposite sex.

The Human Mind

So now that we know what these stages are, how do they relate to personality? Freud hypothesized that the human mind is composed of 3 parts: the id, the ego, and the superego.

The id is basically like what we're born with, and it's all about pleasure. For example, newborns just want their needs fulfilled, and they want whatever feels good at the time. There isn't much awareness of anything else.

The ego begins to develop as we move into later stages of development. The ego is more aware of others outside of us. The ego tries to get the id's needs met but with more consideration that there are other people out there. The ego begins to develop as we move through the later stages of development.

The superego is the part of the mind that operates as the processing center. This is sort of like the part of the brain that is concerned with things like morality or right and wrong. The superego begins to develop in the phallic stage, when we're around five years old.

Stages of Adult Personality

So, what does this have to do with personality? Freud argued that a psychologically healthy person must have completed all the stages of development. If he or she does not, this can lead to psychological problems or an unhealthy personality. Additionally, if we become fixated in a particular stage, this can create problems in our personality.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are 5 main ideas of Freud's personality theory?

The five main stages of Freud's theory of personality development are the oral, the anal, the phallic, the latent, and the genital. The oral and anal phases deal with eating and defecation and the (dis)pleasures that attend them, respectively. The phallic and latency stages deal with taking pleasure in one's genitals followed by a repression of sexual pleasure. Finally, the genital stage is the final stage of development in which the child becomes sexually interested in others.

What are Freud's main theories?

Freud's main theories regarding personality are the topographical model of the mind and the stages of sexual development. The topographic model explains a personality in terms of the ego, the id, and the superego. The stages of sexual development describe a child's changing relationships to their body, their parents, and their society more broadly and how those transforming relationships impact their personality.

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